I have recently been writing about my contemplative practice and what happens in the twenty-five minutes or so of silent awareness each morning that is for me an encounter with presence of God. My presence is very embodied, emotionally and physically aware. I have developed my format over a period of nearly forty years. From 1990 onwards, it was profoundly influenced by my training as a psychotherapist at the Chiron Centre in Ealing. This helped me evolve a deep connection between my bodily experience in meditation and my experience of God. Before I come to that, I want to write about the training itself. You may find this interesting and you may find it completely alien and off the wall to your experience! But the time has come for me to write about something that changed me profoundly and helped make sense of what I believe as a Christian and how it works for me.
The Chiron school training was focused on the body, and the energy within our bodies that is often suppressed by trauma and painful experience. Biodynamic psychotherapy is the name given to working with clients in this way and psycho-peristalsis was integral to the method, which incorporated massage and body work. It was the kind of training from which I would have run away earlier in my life, terrified of what I might find, and the things I might have to do in front of other people. I can still feel terrified and wish I could run away! I relate what I learnt in the training directly to my spiritual life and to my imagination of God. I learnt to trust the process and discovered within it a path to sacred, holy, divine presence in silence and contemplation of the infinite that was lacking in church or Christian teaching and practice.
And now I need to introduce you to some of the key people who laid the foundations for the Chiron training, the first of them being Gerda Boyesen. She was a pioneering Norwegian psychotherapist who was born in Bergen in 1922 and died in 2005. In 1947 she read a book by Wilhelm Reich which made a strong impression on her. Reich was something of a maverick, even in the world of psychotherapy. He died in prison! Not long after reading Reich’s book, she began therapy with Ola Raknes, a vegetotherapist who had been trained by Reich. Later she trained as a psychotherapist herself. Through her own therapy Boyesen became aware of a connection between repressed emotions and muscle tensions. She developed her own therapeutic method linking the work of Reich, Jung and Freud through her own studies, therapeutic experience, and practice.
Boyesen founded what came to be known as Biodynamic Psychology and Psychotherapy. She moved to London in 1969 and opened an international teaching and training institute. Among other things, she developed a theory that the dismantling of psychological stress is connected with the digestive system. She came to the conclusion that certain massage techniques could bring to completion the expression of unwanted feelings, or "incomplete cycles," and this release of emotional charge would entail similar noises from the intestines as during digestions of food. Boyesen called these noises ‘psycho-peristalsis’. And so it was, dear reader, that as well as becoming a psychotherapist I spent three years learning massage techniques using a stethoscope to listen to digestive sounds in people’s intestines.
Practitioners of Body Psychotherapy describe the experience of working with the body as showing that there is an inner knowing and inner core that we can connect to, which usually lies beyond the grasp of the conscious mind. Focusing on our body sensations can help us connect to this inner core. Connecting to our core can create a joyous and empowering experience with a sense of homecoming. Finding ourselves ‘at home’ in our bodies, we can connect with our innermost strengths, learning to listen to our inner voice, finding our personal truth in the present moment, and becoming more fully who we truly are, in all our complexity and beauty.
I was never a very good psychotherapist, lacking the confidence and trust to take risks with clients. I’m not sure I was able to witness such a process as described above in my own practice. But where I have found it is in my meditation practice and my relationship with the ‘Ultimate Presence’ and ‘Ultimate Other’, named God. Through the integration of the psychotherapy training with my Christian meditation practice, I discovered that I do indeed have an inner knowing and inner core, and that in becoming more aware of my body sensations, I began to feel more empowered and at home in my body. I began to experience and trust my innermost strengths and developed the ability to live much more in the present moment. Slowly, I felt myself to be on the Christian path that leads to us becoming more fully the person we are created to be in all our complexity and beauty. The quality of life in all its fullness described by Jesus in John 10.10 has become a reality for me through my practice of prayer enhanced by the wisdom of body psychotherapy.
Learning massage was integral to the training, using a stethoscope placed on the belly to listen to peristaltic discharges. The teaching of body psychotherapy puts it this way: “When old, repressed processes are finally released and digested, body and mind will be freed up and we will sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly, experience an awakening of energy within our body and an awareness of energetic ‘streamings’ and sense of aliveness throughout our body and mind.
I experience this stream of energy and aliveness of body and mind in my contemplation time every morning, together with physical manifestations of streaming and the processing of emotion and experience.
The Practice of the Presence of God
The biodynamic psychotherapist is non critical and non-judgmental in their therapeutic presence. In my practice of the presence of God, which others might name prayer or meditation or contemplation, I assume that the presence I am giving myself to or opening myself to, in my ‘working model of God’, is present to me with the same stance towards me as that held by a biodynamic psychotherapist. If this ‘stance’ of God is so (and this clearly isn’t a widely or consciously held Christian idea of God) - if the quality of God’s presence is genuinely and utterly unconditional, infinite, intimate, love, grace beyond our wildest dreams, utterly non critical and non-judgmental, and we really are working towards giving ourselves in trust to the presence of the divine believing in faith that this the reality, then the quality of our presence and experience in the silence of attention will be transformative, having the potential to affect the whole of our being, as it has the potential to transform a client in psychotherapy.
When I meditate, the same noises and discharges and physical ‘adjustments’ as occur in psychodynamic massage take place in my ‘psychoperistaltic’ system. As the energy which I take to be divine flows within me, my body system processes and melts my defences and anxieties and further restores me to deep peace in the presence of the holy God. When we develop our ability to be ever more present and open to divine presence, what changes might we expect to experience in our body? My body has a tendency to tighten, my breathing to be shallow, my diaphragm tense, by stomach clenched, a tightness in my heart, tension in my neck, tiredness or ache in my head. When I meditate I experience physical sensations of aliveness and a flowing buzz of energy. I imagine my stomach nourished by God’s infinite goodness, my diaphragm flowing with courage, my heart flowing with love and my mind with wisdom (and sometimes, it is!). Isn’t this what we would expect to experience when we consciously bring ourselves into the presence of the divine, the God of Jesus who simply delighted in the glory of life, love, relationship, beauty, and simple presence.
Why does Christianity have such a problem with the human body?
Given all the claims Christianity makes about God, the potential for deep, creative change should be even more present in Christian life and prayer. But this experience people seem to find elusive. Why? Why isn’t the church very good at knowing from experience the presence of God? Why is it not very good at acknowledging our bodies as integral to spiritual life? (Well, that’s not difficult to fathom, give the difficulty it has in coming to terms with the embodiment of women and LGBTI people in the church.) Recently I was re-reading Ken Leech’s 1985 book True God: Anexploration in spiritual theology. Ken describes how the church hangs on to false, inadequate ideas of God and challenges Christian complacency that imagines that to hold a false and inadequate view of God is more serious an obstacle to faith than atheism. Some kind of atheism, says Ken, is a necessary prelude to the discovery of faith and to a more wholesome theology.
He goes further, stating boldly that the essential difference between orthodox Christianity and the various heretical systems is that orthodoxy is rooted in paradox. Heretics, as Irenaeus saw, reject paradox in favour of a false clarity and precision. But true faith can only grow and mature if it includes the elements of paradox and creative doubt. Hence the insistence orthodoxy that God cannot be known by the mind, but is known in the obscurity of faith, in the way of ignorance, in the darkness. Such doubt is not the enemy of faith but an essential element within it. For faith in God does not bring the false peace of answered questions and resolved paradoxes. Rather, it can be seen as a process of ‘unceasing interrogation’. The spirit enters into our lives and puts disturbing questions. Without such creative doubt, religion becomes hard and cruel, degenerating into the spurious security which breeds intolerance and persecution. Without doubt, there is a loss of inner reality and of inspirational power to religious language. The whole of spiritual life must suffer from, and be seriously harmed by, the repression of doubt
In the thirty two years since Ken wrote True God, the Church of England has regressed further away from the true faith rooted in paradox, being driven to accommodate those demanding (false) clarity and precision. The church in 2017 is less mature, less confident, less able and willing to enter the obscurity, ignorance, darkness and doubt that is integral to orthodox faith and practice. There are tens of thousands of people in this country giving themselves intuitively to a process of, if not “unceasing interrogation”, then at least to a process of mindfulness, meditation, contemplation, awareness, convinced that these elements are essential to the living of a balanced life with qualities that I would identify as deeply Christian. Most of these people undertake their spiritual practice entirely independent from the church.